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Lesson 2.10

Student Voice:
What is the Role of the Student in Education Leadership?

Students can lead from a different perspective.

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What is Student Voice?

Students generally don't have much say in their education.

The content of education is powerfully defined by grade-level standards and enforced by standardized tests. The rules that govern the big decisions in schools and school systems can change… but they often change slowly as the outcome of processes that involve many voices. It can be difficult for shifting cohorts of students to have much say.

Student voice connotes genuine student influence based on feedback intentionally sought, especially in matters of importance. With the world changing around them, how can students have an influence over what is expected of them, how their time is used and who teaches them?

California seems to be driving new opportunities for student voices to be heard. In California students can pre-register at age 16 to vote when they turn 18. Recognizing the importance of student leadership in civic life, the state has created the Seal of Civic Engagement, which students can earn for their diploma.

Ed100 has taken a direct role in this trend by creating the Ed100 Online Academy for Student Leaders, a program in early summer that helps student leaders become well-informed, connected and effective. Students must apply for admission to the program, but it is free. The program aspires to include student leaders from each of California's 2,000+ high schools.

What is an ASB?

Student government is a classic "sandbox" for students to develop leadership skills and experience. Under California’s Education Code, student governments in public schools may raise money and, with oversight, decide how to spend it. These school-based student leadership groups are often called Associated Student Body organizations, or ASBs. Students involved in these organizations have opportunities to to develop a variety of skills, including fundraising, planning, budgeting, and communication.

ASB funds are often used to provide equipment for activities, school-wide events (such as dances, rallies, or performances), as well as to support publication of a yearbook. Well-run ASBs prepare a budget detailing planned fundraisers, how much the fundraisers will cost to execute, and plans for what to do if there is either a surplus or shortfall. After the budget is approved by the students, an advisor, and the student council, the school district’s business office must also approve it.

Formally, there are two types of ASBs: unorganized and organized. In unorganized ASBs, students don’t formally govern, especially when it comes to matters of money. Students are usually involved in fundraising, but the school administration typically oversees funds.

Some well-funded student councils take the step of becoming organized ASBs, which are non-profit entities independent from the school. Subject to their by-laws, the students directly make the decisions here, including planning, fundraising, and spending. Adult supervision is provided through school administration, club advisor(s), and someone designated as the ASB bookkeeper who assists and co-approves decisions.

How are students involved in PTAs and PTOs?

Parent organizations (PTAs and PTOs) are associated with schools, but they can establish relationships with ASBs or other student-organized entities. Some parent associations add a letter "S" to their name, designating themselves as PTSAs or PTSOs to reflect that their bylaws include some kind of formal leadership role for students in their work. The details can vary a lot. Students in PTSA organizations may hold any office.

How are students involved in school site councils?

The easiest way for students to play an official role in the education system itself is to serve on the school site council, a committee of teachers, parents, students and school staff that works with the school principal in support of the operation and improvement of the school. Elections for school site councils are typically held at the beginning or end of the school year. Meetings, commonly held monthly, are announced 72 hours in advance and anyone can attend. In many high schools, this is the best-kept secret opportunity for 9th-graders to advance quickly to positions of responsibility.

How can students lead in school districts?

As explained in Ed100 Lesson 7.3, school districts hold a great deal of power in California's education system. Since 2018, California law has required school districts to include a student member on their board, if petitioned by a modest number of high school students. The bill creating this change passed into law with little opposition, but in many school districts such a petition still has not been completed. You can learn more about the process on Ed100, including where to find sample wording for a petition to add a student representative.

Students who serve on school boards in California are connected with one another through the California Student Board Members Association (CSBMA), a student-led organization that provides training and support. Student members of district school boards in California serve in an advisory capacity; they can influence board decisions and speak in meetings but cannot cast a binding vote. Some school districts record student preferential votes in their minutes.

California school boards in districts with high school students are required to include a student member, but only if high school students petition for it.

How can students improve their own schools?

Students have a lot to say about their schools, when asked in a way that takes them seriously. Some schools and districts collect information about student perceptions and experiences related to school climate and many other aspects of their learning experiences using the California Healthy Kids Survey. The results can provide insights into how different groups of young people see their school experiences.

Confident teachers and school leaders take time to solicit open-ended feedback from students. Rare schools, with care and seriousness, involve students in work that they are uniquely qualified to do: evaluating teachers to help them improve. As Ed100 Lesson 3.9 explains, some states require student feedback as an element of teacher evaluations, but California is not among them.

How can students influence change in California's schools statewide?

California has several established mechanisms for students to be heard in state-level education policy settings. The California Association of Student Councils, a student-led youth leadership organization, organizes conferences and programs that prepare students to present proposals to lawmakers and to the State Board of Education. The most important are the SABE and SABLE conferences. The state's largest organization for student advocacy might by GENup, which involves students through a network of local student-led chapters. ACLU of Southern California involves students through a selective program. All of these organizations presented at the 2020 Ed100 Academy. (See the presentations here.)

The California State Board of Education includes a voting student member appointed by the Governor.

At the state level, California incorporates student voice in a rare and authentic way: The State Board of Education includes a voting student member, which can be traced to student advocacy in the 1970s and 1980s. The only other states with voting student members on their state board of education are Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maryland. Eleven other state education boards list student advisors on their web page.

How can students lead beyond the education system?

Technology has eliminated many barriers that used to keep students out of "grown up" meetings, which has made it possible for students to organize beyond their own school community and beyond education as an issue of concern. For example, youth leader Greta Thunberg has inspired students spanning the globe to find their voice in advocating for changes in climate policy.

Updated September 2018, May 2019, September 2019, April 2021, August 2021.

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The California State Board of Education includes a voting student position. What about California school district boards?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 29, 2021 at 10:29 am
In June 2021 the US Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that schools have little authority to limit student speech when it can be argued that the speech takes place outside the school. The ruling (and the dissent) would make excellent fodder for school assignments. See EdSource summary.
user avatar
Mateo Meza June 28, 2021 at 10:12 pm
I’m a firm believer in the idea that we students should have a lot more of a voice in education. At the end of the day, only the students can say whether something is working or not; we actually experience it.
user avatar
Mo Kashmiri July 11, 2020 at 11:43 am
Do any districts have a voting student member on the school board?
user avatar
Jeff Camp July 11, 2020 at 11:21 pm
Yes, with limits. In California, students can easily require their district to include a student representative on the board -- just circulate a petition. The specific voting rights of the student rep depend on the content of the petition and the content of the board policy passed in response. In California law the student rep's vote is "preferential" -- not counted, but possibly recorded. Read the post "can students serve on school boards" for more. (Linked above.)
user avatar
afrinier February 16, 2020 at 12:03 pm
I am proud of Glendale Unified School District. We have been having ongoing Special Board of Education meetings consisting of a panel of students assembled from our 5 high schools to dialogue about a variety of education topics with the Board of Education in a public forum. Keep it up GUSD! This is a valuable activity for our students and for our representatives on the Board!
user avatar
Caryn February 18, 2020 at 10:37 am
Thanks for sharing! This is great news and a terrific example of real engagement happening at GUSD. Be sure to pass your feedback on to your district leaders--I'm sure they will appreciate hearing your perspective.
user avatar
Claudia Knoell December 23, 2019 at 8:22 am
I’d love to learn how to encourage student participation. I have middle schoolers, but the interest isn’t there yet.
user avatar
Caryn February 18, 2020 at 10:33 am
Hi Claudia, thanks for your comment. This is a great question and I hope our readers will chime in. I think a good place to begin is by helping your children recognize they play an important role in their education. This may spark an interest in how decisions impacting their learning are made. You could also bring them along to your next BOE or PTA meeting and give them the chance to interact and ask questions about things that are important to them, even if they might seem somewhat insignificant (e.g. cafeteria complaints or inadequate PE equipment). Also, encouraging them to participate in ASB or other leadership opportunities at school can help them gain the skills and confidence to participate in future advocacy roles. Finally, sharing small bites of what you've learned from Ed100 may help entice them to play an active role in student leadership opportunities available in your district.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar January 11, 2016 at 12:56 pm
The Student Voices Campaign
The Student Voices Campaign provides a creative way for young people to make their voices heard in their local school district.
Launched by the California Alliance for Arts Education, the campaign invites students in grades 7-12 to create videos that share their vision for better schools and their education and share them with school district leaders as part of the annual Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) planning process between November 10, 2015 and April 1, 2016.
Find out more:
http://studentvoicescampaign.org
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder October 16, 2015 at 1:04 pm
Michael McFarland, the 2015-16 student member of the California State Board of Education, interviewed by Ed100's Carol Kocivar on KALW: http://kalw.org/post/looking-education-carol-kocivar-3#stream/0. Each year about 200 students apply for the one-year position. Michael is from Palos Verdes, CA.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder September 11, 2015 at 10:32 am
What happens when students are asked to make decisions about a school's budget? Students at Overfelt High School in San Jose were given control over $50,000. What did they do with it? http://edsource.org/2015/students-get-piece-of-the-action-after-seeking-a-say-in-budget/79194?utm_source=Ed100 (Be sure to scroll to the bottom of this one to read the conversation...)
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder May 23, 2015 at 1:03 pm
Californians for Justice studied methods of seeking student feedback at four high schools in 2015. Findings and recommendations are contained in a Very Large online report here: https://caljustice.egnyte.com/dl/uV2ShMMLaM
user avatar
ptalisa April 28, 2015 at 5:46 pm
Our district has her stay the whole meeting - we love her being there. She also comes to PTA board meetings to hear what we are doing
user avatar
shadowzwench April 27, 2015 at 12:23 pm
Our school district does have high school student representatives on the school board, but they are usually dismissed from the meetings early which is unfortunate. Our middle school SSC does have two student representatives. They ask some great questions.
user avatar
Veli Waller April 3, 2015 at 9:47 pm
I see very little youth voice in my community. I would love to have students participating on our LCAP Advisory Committee.
user avatar
norburypta March 17, 2015 at 9:30 pm
Many middle and high school's PTAs are formed as PTSAs (the 'S' is for 'Student'), giving roles for the students to fill in the policy making of the association.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder March 17, 2015 at 10:31 pm
Each year, a high school student is selected to serve as a member of the California State Board of Education. The application for the position is available here: http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/pn/pn/sbestudentmembermemo.asp
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 10:31 am
"Students have a lot to say about their schools. When confident teachers and school leaders take time to ask students for their feedback or advice, they generally find it enlightening. "
Students should be encouraged and asked to participate in school decisions. Student councils are not for everyone ,but just like band or choir or drama - the option should be available for them to speak out. Even if their friends aren't a part of the council, they most likely give their opinions to those who are. It's no different from how I am not a senator but still tell him/her how I feel they should vote.
user avatar
Paul Muench October 31, 2014 at 9:33 pm
You should include some quotes form Charles Taylor Kerchner about students being the real workers in education.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder November 1, 2014 at 10:53 pm
Agreed. Here's a piece he wrote a few years ago for PACE: http://www.edpolicyinca.org/blog/students-are-real-workers-education-system-elements-learning-20. I also extend on this theme in a "compare and contrast" piece here on Ed100: /schools-are-like-businesses/
user avatar
Arati N June 19, 2014 at 2:08 pm
We have student council leaders participate in school site council meetings at the middle school. They bring student perspective to programs and take information back from the meeting to the students. Great messengers of information flow.
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